WASHINGTON -- In the face of strong opposition from the White House and small businesses, an effort by major corporations and civil rights groups to draft a job discrimination bill collapsed yesterday.
The man who initiated the effort, Robert C. Allen, chairman and chief executive officer of American Telephone & Telegraph Co., said his company was pulling out of the negotiations because his efforts at compromise were being undercut by "all sides of the issue."
The AT&T decision is a serious blow to efforts by civil rights groups and their Democratic allies in Congress to devise a civil rights bill that will attract enough congressional support to override an expected White House veto.
A Democratic bill pending in the House of Representatives would almost certainly be vetoed by President Bush, who rejected a similar measure last year and was able to make his veto stand.
Business executives familiar with the discussions say that Mr. Allen had become increasingly frustrated by the unwillingness of the civil rights groups to compromise on the issue of the amount juries could award to plaintiffs who prove intentional discrimination by employers.
At the same time, the White House, especially White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray and Chief of Staff John H. Sununu, have nurtured opposition within the business community to the discussions. Civil rights groups said yesterday that it was the White House pressure that primarily influenced Mr. Allen.
"The fact of the matter is the political process has overtaken our activities," Mr. Allen said in a telephone interview from the AT&T offices in Basking Ridge, N.J.
"We can only be useful if we are invited into the process, and it appears that parties on all sides of the issue are trying to scuttle our activities."
As word of the AT&T withdrawal spread, Democratic leaders called Mr. Allen to urge him not to abandon the talks, a spokesman for the company chairman said.
Mr. Allen said he would not rule out further talks with the civil rights groups. "The relationship still exists, and the work we've done is still there and we are willing to be engaged in the process," he said. "But I can't control that three-ring circus in Washington."
Mr. Allen was the driving force behind the talks that had been conducted since mid-December between civil rights groups and the Business Roundtable, a organization of 200 heads of major corporations.
When Mr. Bush vetoed the civil rights bill last year, he said it would compel businesses to adopt quotas to avoid litigation. Civil rights groups denied that their bill would lead to quotas and insisted that they were merely trying to restore the law to what it was before Supreme Court decisions in 1989 weakened federal anti-discrimination law.
This year, the White House has introduced its own civil rights bill, which civil rights groups have termed too weak. Meanwhile, those groups entered into talks with the Business Roundtable in hopes that any agreement would allow them to say they had the endorsement of the business community.
But the White House viewed the talks with alarm, fearing that an agreement with the representatives of large companies would split the opposition within the business community and perhaps in Congress.
The White House was joined in its opposition by some trade associations -- primarily those representing small businesses -- that feared that the large corporations would agree to terms that would be harmful to smaller firms.
The collapse of the talks was greeted with dismay by civil rights groups who said that the discussions had fallen victim to White House lobbying. Several Democrats and civil rights leaders have accused the Bush administration of seeking to torpedo the talks in order to gain political mileage out of their opposition to a "quota bill."
"I am dispirited at the apparent success of the White House's attempt to scuttle these negotiations," said Judith Lichtman, president of the Women's Legal Defense Fund.
Judith Smith, a spokeswoman for the White House, said the administration would have no comment on the ending of the negotiations.
Officials of some civil rights organizations expressed anger at Mr. Allen's decision and suggested that minorities and women retaliate against AT&T.
"From my standpoint, we in the NAACP will have to determine who are our friends in the business community," said Wade Henderson, director of the Washington office of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
But some Democratic supporters of talks said privately that the civil rights groups had only themselves to blame for the collapse.
One civil rights lawyer familiar with the negotiations, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, which has been conducting the negotiations, has dragged out the talks for months, allowing White House and business opposition to the talks to effectively organize.
Individuals familiar with the workings of the Leadership Conference said it had been unable to reach a consensus on the issue of monetary damages.
The Business Roundtable negotiators sought to place a ceiling on jury awards for women, religious minorities and the disabled of $100,000 for harassment and $150,000 in cases of "wanton, willful and egregious discrimination." Groups within the Leadership Conference pressed for parity with plaintiffs who win racial discrimination suits.